A Question of Definitions…

Before Christmas, I, as is my wont, idly Googled search terms as “Best Board Games 2014”  and “Best Board Games for Christmas”, and the like, in the Google “News” section.   I’ve done this for the last five or so years, and I do it because, as a person who’s keen to see the profile of board gaming increase, I’ve found it a useful - if crude - barometer of the mainstream media’s perceptions of the hobby (which also means, incidentally, that I ignore search hits from specialist games sites, or so-called “geek culture” sites).  

A couple of things emerged.  Firstly, the bad thing:  As in previous years, the majority of the lists still read for the most part like a cut-and-paste from the Hasbro catalogue, with Monopoly, Cluedo, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and at least one party game like Scattergories or Cranium, as the “adult” games.  Even more depressingly, several lists included multiple themed “versions” of Monopoly, as if they weren’t exactly the same game:  “Hey guys, that was a great game of The Lord of the Rings Monopoly!  Now let’s play a completely different game!  Wait for it...it’s…One Direction Monopoly!  Woo!  Er…can I be Harry?”.   The laziness and venality displayed by this kind of so-called “journalism” enrages me, but that’s not the subject of this post, so I’ll just move on before I need a blood-pressure pill.

So let’s look at the good thing: on a few of the lists there were several games of the kind we’d play at MAB.  Ticket to Ride Europe featured, as did Settlers of Catan, but also things like Pandemic and Forbidden Island – “gateway” games, that can introduce people to the whole world of elegant and intellectually-stimulating board games that exists outside of the hegemony of the Hasbro imperium.  This is very encouraging to me.

Probably the best of the mainstream lists I found, from a gamer point of view, was one in The Telegraph here.   It’s got Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic, but also things like King of Tokyo,  Small World, Biblios and Camel Up! - pretty good stuff.    But it’s the name of the list that got me thinking:  it’s called “15 party games you probably haven’t tried but definitely should”

15…party games.  Party.

Now, to be fair it does have a few party games in there, and they’re not the usual Hasbro fare (Moustache Smash, and Say Anything, for example), and I know that the headlines at the top of an article usually get written by sub-editors, not the writers.   Of course nothing says “Party on, dudes!” like treating deadly, infectious diseases in a game of Pandemic, right?   But seriously, most of the games on the list are not, I would argue, the kind of thing many people would pick to play with a bunch of mildly sozzled adults at a get-together.   If someone used this list to choose a game to play after their Christmas lunch with the family, they might very well come a cropper: “No, Gran! No more sherry for you until you understand that your Fortified Elves can’t continue to build fortresses after they’ve gone into Decline!”.   These really are not, in the main, “party” games.  

So what are they?

Earlier in this post, I used a form of words that might have seemed a bit odd.  I said “…several games of the kind we’d play at MAB”.  Not very clear, is it, unless you already know what kind of games we tend to play?  When I was putting together the MAB website, one of the key aims was to encourage people who didn’t know about “games of the kind we’d play” to find out more, and maybe come down and join us.   But I really struggled with how to explain what these games are to someone unfamiliar with them, because I felt that there isn’t a well-known and clear-cut title that would neatly describe to an outsider the typical game we play.  Now, that, perhaps, in itself raises another issue, because what is the “typical game”?   We’ll actually play pretty much anything – as anyone who had watched us growling and ka-booming our way through Roar-a-Saurus recently could attest.    However, I think it’s fair to say that we do have a sort of core style of game that we play…I just don’t really know what it’s called.

I’m not the only person to struggle with this, which I allude to on the “New to Modern Board Games” page, here on the website.   “Board games”, “Tabletop games”, “Strategy games”, “Eurogames”, “Thematic games”, “Hobby games”: they’re all names that are tried, but none seem  to properly articulate the reality – there’s objections, greater and lesser, to all of them.  The Wikipedia page calls them “German-style games”, an epithet I think is long overdue a review.  I went with “Eurogames” for the site, but I grow increasingly concerned that this name sounds…well…a bit weird to the non-initiated.

But does it really matter?  Well, yes, I would say it kind of does.  Precision in language is very important to people, and the shades of meaning conveyed by subtleties in definitions can make big practical differences.   Say “Board Game” and most people say “Oh, like Scrabble/Monopoly/Cluedo?”.   Say “Strategy Game” and many people think of chess, or maybe wargames.   I chose “Eurogames” because a) many people who like these games do know what it means and b)  I thought it sounded intriguing enough for those that don’t to check out the page…but you couldn’t really work out what was meant just from the name.   I think that to get more people interested (i.e. get more opponents, so I can play more games!), we need to have a way of making a differentiation from the tired, tedious old standbys like Monopoly, et al., that - anecdotally, at least - have put so many people off board games for life.

Perhaps it’s just a question of a lack of present consensus.  Language is consensual:  in order to communicate we need a shared lexicon, and definitions for things rise, fall, and even change utterly, over time.   Perhaps, on the inevitable day when board games take over from all other forms of entertainment, and we rule the planet…ahem, sorry, I mean, when board games get a bit more cultural profile, then perhaps we’ll collectively converge on a term that will be as unambiguous a descriptor as “football”.  No, wait, the Americans call their version of Rugby “football”, don’t they?   Oh, you get what I mean!

As I wrote this post, it occurred to me that, actually, the one I might start using more is “Tabletop games”.   I know it’s also used to describe things like RPGs, but right now it’s got one significant advantage in my mind:  Wil Wheaton’s “Tabletop” web show (which, if you’ve not seen it, I would suggest you check out).   If I say “Tabletop games”, and someone says “What’s that?”, I can point them at the show.   But then…”Tabletop games” also covers things like Monopoly and Cluedo, the very things I was just railing against.

Ah…I give up.  

So…what do YOU call them?